Operational / Strategic Military

  • A number of reports suggest that the Russian Federation Armed Forces (RFAF) are preparing for a possible counter-attack on the northern Luhansk axis. Elements of the 1st Guards Tank Army (1st GTA) have reportedly redeployed from training areas in Belarus to the Svatove-Kreminna axis. This ‘elite’ unit was heavily degraded earlier in the war and has since been recuperating and receiving replacement troops (likely from the mobilisation in autumn 2022) and equipment in preparation for a return to combat. 
  • Over the last week, there have been several videos released of Russia’s most modern Main Battle Tank (MBT) the T-90M ‘Proryv’. They have reportedly been observed fighting in northern Luhansk/eastern Kherson.

Video reportedly showing RFAF operating the latest T-90M tanks on the northern axis. Source: @pravda_eng

  • A representative of the Ukrainian Main Intelligence Directorate (GUR) has reported that as of 25 January 2023, there were 5,800 RFAF personnel in Belarus. This is a decrease from the estimated 10-13,000 reported to have been conducting training there in December 2022. As noted above, reporting indicates the movement of ‘elite’ units of the 1st GTA from Belarus to the Luhansk axis in eastern Ukraine.  

Graphic from the Belarusian Hajun Project regarding the extension of BAF Exercises in Belarus. Source: @Hajun_BY

British Defence Intelligence post on the movement of the 2nd Guards Motor Rifle Division, part of the 1st GTA. Source: @DefeceHQ

So What?

  • It is almost certain that the RFAF does not currently have the combat power massed in Belarus to open another front in western Ukraine. The limited number of Russian forces and almost certain unwillingness of President Lukashenko to directly involve his forces in combat prevents a serious threat to Ukrainian territory along their shared border, including another attempt to isolate Kyiv. 
  • The redeployment of regenerated units to the Svatove-Kreminna front is a possible indicator of Russian intent to conduct a more significant offensive in the region. Whilst Russia has been using degraded forces and Wagnerite mercenaries/Chechen militias to fix the Ukrainian Armed Forces (UAF), it is likely that soldiers mobilised during later stages of the first round of Russian mobilisation last year have been trained more extensively than the initial conscripts (which were committed piecemeal and ill-equipped) and preserved for an unidentified future operation. 
  • It is likely that the ongoing Russian skirmishes/reconnaissance in Zaporizhia Oblast are intended to probe the Ukrainian defensive line and fix UAF defenders in the area to prevent their redeployment north in the event of a Russian renewed offensive to seize the areas of Luhansk Oblast which are under Ukrainian control. 

Political

  • NATO nations have begun to confirm their intent to supply the UAF with Main Battle Tanks (MBTs). Since the United Kingdom (UK) promised a squadron of Challenger 2 (CR2) MBTs last week, the United States (US), Germany and Poland have all stated they will provide tanks to Ukraine. Several Scandinavian countries use Leopard 2 variants and are reportedly considering sending them. Current estimates of likely donations indicate 130-150 tanks, about half of what the UAF stated they needed in December 2022. 
  • Russia likely responded to these announcements with a concentrated bombardment against Ukrainian population centres including Kyiv, Odesa, Vinnytsia, Dnipro, and Kherson using air- and sea-launched cruise missiles, Shahed-136 munitions, and possibly short-range ballistic missiles on the morning of 26 January 2023. 
  • The impending appearance of Western-made MBTs on the battlefields of Ukraine have been played down in the pro-Russian mil-blogger sphere. The main themes involve the numbers being insufficient and claims that the modern Russian MBTs (T-90M and T-72B3 Obr.2022 predominantly) are superior to Leopard 2A4/A6, Challenger 2, and older variants of the M1A1 Abrams. 

H I Sutton’s (Covert Shores website) provides an infographic showing which countries have pledged, or are considering donating, Western MBTs to Ukraine as of 25 January 2023. Source: @CovertShores

  • Unspecified US and UK intelligence officials reportedly told CNN that Russia planned another wave of mobilization of up to 200,000 further personnel for the operation in Ukraine. They believed that President Putin was aware how badly received last year’s partial mobilisation was among the Russian population, and this time around it would be conducted more covertly. There was no further detail supplied on what means this covert mobilisation may take. 
  • According to the Russian TASS News Agency, the Russian Ministry for Transport proposed a registration system for vehicles planning to exit Russia via land borders. The proposal was passed to the State Duma earlier this week and was reportedly intended to ease congestion at border crossing points (BXPs). After this announcement there was speculation on Russian social media that the country was creating the law to prevent a further exodus of potential conscripts in advance of another mobilisation effort. The Ministry of Transport subsequently released a further statement according to RIA Novosti, saying that the measures would only apply to cargo trucks and apply at select BXPs. If approved by the Duma, the law could come into effect for one year, possibly starting as early as 1 March 2023. 
Screenshot of TASS report on their Telegram Channel covering the proposed border restrictions. Translated using Google. Source: https://t.me/tasss/177786

So What?

  • It is unlikely that the UAF will receive (or be trained appropriately on) NATO MBTs in the immediate term, and their availability for employment is not imminent. Whilst conversion-training for existing UAF tank crews (used to Soviet vehicles) will be relatively quick compared to the standard Western training timelines, it is still likely to take months. The Abrams is particularly advanced and uses non-standard components and fuel, so will have an additional equipment care and resupply burden.
  • Training Equipment Support troops to maintain and repair Western MBTs, as well as introducing another nature of munition (120mm smoothbore) to the logistics pipeline is also likely to be relatively complex and will not be solved immediately. Most pledged contributions are for variants of Leopard 2 which will have parts and technical compatibility, but the M1A1 and CR2 as notable exceptions which will have their own set of requirements. 
  • The proposed MBT deliveries will likely be sufficient to equip one of the newly formed UAF Mechanised Infantry Corps’ but falls well short of the numbers requested by Kyiv. 
  • Once the UAF has confirmed timelines for the delivery of the new equipment, they may be more content to commit existing MBTs to planned offensives, reassured by the knowledge that they will subsequently be replaced or reconstituted with Western MBTs in the future. 
  • The playing-down of the potential impact of Western MBTs on the battlefield in the Russian information space is indicative that the Kremlin is unlikely to seek to frame the act as a significant NATO escalation. Putin and the Russian government have also claimed already that the operation in Ukraine is a “proxy war with NATO” already underway – and it is likely that there are very limited strategic options for a response. Russia is also unlikely to have sufficient precision-strike munitions to increase the frequency and quantity of strikes against Ukrainian infrastructure. Russia’s avenues of escalation are primarily: 
    • Nuclear escalation. Use of tactical nuclear weapons in Ukraine almost certainly will not occur. It does not fit with published Russian aims in Ukraine and would risk further escalation which worse case could lead to the destruction of Russia (and the world) in global thermonuclear war. 
    • Mass mobilisation and full transition to a war-economy. Whilst exceedingly risky and likely a highly unpopular move, Putin may be setting conditions in the information space for a mass mobilisation and increase in production of materiel to create an overwhelmingly large army which could be used to crush Ukraine. Whilst currently this is assessed to have a low likelihood in the short-term (1-3 months), it is the Most Dangerous Course of Action for Ukraine and NATO. The move would almost certainly be unpopular in Russia among the population, though Putin may feel that he has sufficient strength among his security organisations (police/OMON, FSB and Rosgvardia) for popular uprising not to constitute a threat to his seat of power. 
  • Due to the unpopularity of the last wave of mobilisation, it is a realistic possibility that the next round will occur more covertly – and will involve gradual changes to laws to increase eligibility and to punish/prohibit resistance or egress of those eligible. One example of this is the proposed border monitoring/restrictions; during the last round of mobilisation, it was reported that mobile recruiting detachments deployed to BXPs to coerce/’recruit’ Russian males attempting to flee. Forcing travellers to register their planned journey details will almost certainly allow the Russian state to conduct further interdictions should unpopular mobilisation measures trigger another wave of emigration.

What Next?

It is a realistic possibility that the RFAF is beginning to transfer additional forces to the Svatove-Kreminna front in preparation for a larger-scale offensive to control the remaining Ukrainian territory in Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts and secure Ground Lines of Communication from Belgorod Oblast to Luhansk and Donetsk regions. Due to the presence and effect of UAF precision fires (such as HIMARs and guided artillery shells), it is highly likely that freshly (re)deployed troops will be kept dispersed to prevent targeting prior to massing for an attack. It is a realistic possibility that the RFAF main effort will focus on the capture of Slovyansk and Lyman. A supporting offensive from the P-66 westwards would likely be required, as well as additional probing in Zaporizhia and a continuation of attacks in Donetsk to fix UAF and prevent the redeployment of troops to counter this offensive. It is highly likely that in the medium term (3-6 months) the RFAF offensive will culminate without achieving its probably objectives. 

Belarus is likely to see another influx of RFAF troops within the next month, as units are rotated through training grounds before deployment to eastern Ukraine. This routine is indicative that the BAF and RFAF do not intend to launch a ground incursion into western Ukraine from Belarusian territory – although it is almost certain that the Russian military will continue to use Belarusian airspace to launch missile strikes against targets in Ukraine. It is almost certain that the BAF/RFAF will not launch a ground offensive from Belarus within the next month, and it is highly likely that any renewed threat from this course of action will be identified prior to its commencement. 

In the immediate term it is unlikely that Western MBTs will appear on the front lines in Ukrainian service. Whilst there are mixed opinions on how long a conversion-training package would take for Ukrainian tank crews, timelines vary from four weeks for “basic proficiency” to about six to eight months from training beginners. This does not account for the equipment support requirements. It is a realistic possibility that should the UAF decide to employ the NATO-supplied tanks in a single formation (such as an armoured brigade as a part of a Mechanised Infantry Corps), then this formation would not be ready for combat prior to the publicly announced ‘Spring Offensive’ in March or April this year. 

It is a realistic possibility that the 1 March 2023 proposed implementation of additional Russian border-controls will be concurrent to an increase in mobilisation efforts, and possibly alongside further militarisation of Russia’s economy. It is highly likely that Putin is setting conditions for a prolonged campaign in Ukraine, framing it in the context of the Great Patriotic War (WW2) and a proxy battle of national existence vs NATO aggressors. This propaganda angle is likely to influence the Duma to pass draft laws which infringe on the (already limited) freedoms of the Russian population to prevent citizens from avoiding mobilisation. It is unlikely that Russia will openly announce another round of mass mobilisation to support the war within the next month; however, the risk is likely to increase from early March. This timeline could be accelerated if there are signs of a pre-emptive exodus of potential soldiers. 

If the US changes its stance on the provision of long-range strike weapons (such as ATACMS ballistic missiles) and these are used to strike targets in Russia, this action would likely provide additional pretext for mobilisation due to the perceived threat to the homeland and population in Russia. US/Western provision of accurate short-range ballistic missiles is unlikely in the short term. 

DONETSK OBLAST, UKRAINE - JANUARY 26: Ukrainian soldiers are seen on their ways to the frontlines with their armored military vehicles as the strikes continue on the Donbass frontline, during Russia and Ukraine war in Donetsk Oblast, Ukraine on January 26, 2023.

DONETSK OBLAST, UKRAINE - JANUARY 26: Ukrainian soldiers are seen on their ways to the frontlines with their armored military vehicles as the strikes continue on the Donbass frontline, during Russia and Ukraine war in Donetsk Oblast, Ukraine on January 26, 2023.